Developed with obvious love for boxing, director Bartle Bull’s Cradle of Champions shifts between feeling like an absolute first feature and the work of a seasoned pro. It’s the way Bull frames his subjects – three fighters competing in New York’s Daily News Golden Gloves tournament – so that the audience is pulled into their stories without offering any kind of clear set-up or identifiers. This requires the audience to possess not just knowledge of boxing as a sport, but the players within it. While it’s never unheard of for a documentary to play more towards a specific audience than a general one, within a documentary, there’s at least a semblance of onboarding. So while the mechanics of Cradle of Champions are strong and the individuals involved are captivating, the documentary as a whole can be hard to engage in without proper foreknowledge.
Even with the issues present in Cradle, Bull does successfully deliver a documentary which possesses the ability to elevate, in the mind of its audience, a sport which they may only view as bloodsport and nothing more. Through getting to know James Wilkins, Titus Williams, and Nisa Rodriguez – not just as fighters, but individuals – Cradle effectively presents boxing as not too dissimilar from soccer, baseball, football, or other physical sports which require dedication and focus. Additionally, from Bull’s estimation, boxing also offers the same redemptive opportunities. James, Titus, and Nisa come from similar backgrounds and are each returning Golden Gloves champions, however, the journeys to get there are different. As the documentary unfolds, the audience is given more and more insight into the differences and similarities between them, effectively peeling back the preconceptions of a boxer to reveal a universal truth: athletes are athletes.
Intentionally or not, James and Titus are quickly presented as rivals. There’s a brief back-and-forth cut together of them discussing the other early on but neither fighter spends much time talking about the other. It’s the fact that they’re in the same weight class within the tournament that makes them immediate rivals. The mere fact that they were once sparring partners, and, later, competitors in a fight which Titus won, injects a bit of tension during the tournament. As though to fill up the areas where their rivalry doesn’t carry the narrative, Bull explores Joe Higgins, Titus’s trainer, and Pat Russo, a former gym owner who wants to prevent the decimation of New York’s boxing gym community. Higgins and Russo offer bigger-picture perspectives on the sport, giving audiences insight into how fighters train and how the community rallies around them. Pulling in non-family members who are directly connected to the Golden Gloves tournament enables Bull to layer Cradle in a manner which allows examination of the individual fighters within the boxing community, while also giving a lesson on the history of said community. Strangely, Nisa isn’t explored as deeply as the other two within Cradle and her’s is the story that is most engaging. As a single mom who put herself through high school, coaches boxing at another high school, and has won the Golden Gloves five times prior to this tournament, Nisa’s tale is something far more inspirational and interesting. Again, intentionality is uncertain, but through Nisa’s experience going through the women’s side of the tournament, the audience gets a sense of how underappreciated and undervalued her tournament is compared to the men’s. This is most apparent during the Semi-Finals, where James and Titus dress up in suits to arrive at the venue where a mostly affluent, white audience waits for the fights to begin, while Nisa arrives a venue wearing her usual pre-fight outfit with the usual local community audience. If nothing else, this parallel sequence highlights the disparate view of men’s sports versus women’s, as well as offers visual commentary on how classism surrounding the sport. This isn’t the target for Bull’s documentary, yet it can’t be ignored.
Despite all the things that work, the fact that the audience is forced to piece together who is who, their connection to the principals, and the relevance to the larger focus of examination (the Golden Gloves tournament and boxing as a sport), all while tracking where James, Titus, or Nisa are within the scope of the documentary means the audience is constantly on the move, rather than going with the flow. Other than the fact that the documentary opens in the winter, evidenced by James running through the snow as the film opens, there’s no clear sense of time or location. James could be anywhere, running through a neighborhood adjacent to a major metropolitan area, and we’d never know it. Granted, the sequence of James training and then explaining his various accolades in boxing is a great way to draw audiences in to the story before explaining the Golden Gloves tournament, but it never returns to introduce the subjects, their coaches, trainers, or any other individual we meet. Not a title card, nothing. It’s inference or bust for the whole of Cradle. This is particularly important the further into the documentary when members of the Golden Gloves organization are shown prepping for the final awards, but we don’t know who they are. So when one of the awards-preppers begins to talk about his history as a boxer, if the audience possesses no knowledge of the sport, there’s nothing to make the significance of his presence relevant. Choices like these undermine the engaging elements, causing less learned audience members to struggle with what they see.
At its core, documentary Cradle of Champions exalts boxing as a sport and the individuals who participate. In that regard, it’s incredibly successful. The fighters are passionate, their support systems comprised of individuals who view boxing as a tool for lifting people up, and boxing is engrained within the New York community. The combination of direction, editing, and music certainly adds a sense of larger than life stakes, even as our competitors are doing something as simple as a weigh-in. Being able to make that seem tense is worth a hat tip alone. That said, unless you’re in that world, it’s difficult to track who is who, what they’re doing, and why the Golden Gloves matters as much as it does. One interviewee even states that losing matters as much as winning due to fighters like Muhammad Ali losing the tournament. But if the competition itself matters so much, why isn’t it explored how it matters to boxing at-large? The audience can handle tracking the individuals and their stories without the help of personal identifiers, though it would help to tighten the narrative threads within Cradle. What becomes the most difficult to parse is why does matters beyond personal drive if these fighters win the Golden Gloves one more time? Why is one win not enough to earn their reputation or build a legacy? As much as Cradle of Champions keeps stating that the Golden Gloves tournament is champion-building, it never explores the why or how. Without that, it doesn’t really matter whether James or Titus wins their fight or if Nisa wins her 6th Golden Glove necklace. As an audience, we should care as much as Bull does. Without these few toeholds, audiences are likely to struggle with why any of it matters.
For more information on documentary Cradle of Champions, head to the official website. Current Showtime subscribers should check their listings for broadcast. Cradle of Champions is also available for streaming through Showtime Anywhere and Amazon Prime.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.